As he was decanting black Edding marker-pen ink, Gerhard Richter found himself watching the ink dripping onto some paper. So, toying with this idea, he tipped some ink onto other sheets and started to use a variety of means to manipulate its flow.
He thinned it with benzene or acetone and added black tusche and other ingredients; as he did so the colour of the fluid changed, developing reddish and blueish hues. Since the paper Richter used for this was highly absorbent, the ink soaked through to the back of the sheets creating two related, reversed images, one on either side. The inks mixed with solvents then soaked down through the stack of sheets leaving ever fainter marks, which linked the figurations together like echoes.
In a few cases Richter applied lacquer to one side of the sheet, or drew pencil lines across the patches of colour, marking particular moments in the flow of shapes. This contemplative game with inks, with Richter leafing forwards and backwards through the sheets, produced twenty-seven two-sided works that follow in a sequence determined by their making. As so often in his long career as a painter, Richter was initially wary of the outcome of this process, set the ensemble aside and postponed his final judgement on it.
One of the distinguishing features of Richter’s working methods is that he is rarely, if ever, satisfied with his own initial gesture, and as a rule subjects it to a lengthy process of critical scrutiny, revision and reworking, from which a work ultimately arises whose substance may by now have progressed far beyond what might have originally appeared to be the artist’s intention.
This is particularly apparent in the case of certain paintings that Richter photographed at various stages during their making. In so doing, he is no different to other painters from the past who have favoured a similar form of self-critique. However, in Richter’s case there is another aspect to this process, which can be seen very well in the November sheets and which could be described as a synthetic reworking. At the same time, it would be wrong to view this as a concept or a method, for the nature of this post-production process is always different, depending on the circumstances of the work in question.
In order to exhibit it in its entirety, facsimiles had to be made of the backs of the seven sheets that had been worked on both sides. Richter subsequently observed that few viewers were able to distinguish the original sheets from the ink-jet reproductions – in an instance of the unintentional confusion of reality and its likeness. When he then returned to November three years after its making, he had a complete set of facsimiles made because this was the only way to view both sides of the twenty-seven sheets at the same time and to come to any conclusions regarding the entire series.
The ensuing sequence, with its regular alternation of recto and verso, conveyed the sense of an almost mechanical process in the virtually symmetrical pairs of images. This series of mirror-image situations gave rise to an interesting factor that Richter had not hitherto been able to deploy so directly in either his drawings or watercolours. In these “reflections” each motif was juxtaposed with its own mirror image, in other words, a particular mimetic relationship ensued, in the sense that the likenesses do not replicate a motif in the usual way but re-present it in reverse.
At the same time, the likeness is so faithful that it is hard to distinguish it from the original motif, indeed the relationship can be reversed – the original and the likeness can be interchanged or become impossible to tell apart. Richter has used reflections in various ways in his work. The pose of the painter checking the accuracy of his own work in a hand-held mirror is familiar from photographs. And in addition to the crystal clear or coloured mirrors that are interspersed in amongst the paintings in Richter’s catalogue raisonné, there are also apparent reflections included in the photographs that make up 128 Details from a Picture (1978) and in the picture sequences in his photo-book Eis (2011). The book War Cut (2004) is constructed from enlarged details of a painting, which are arranged in a complex, self-mirroring sequence.
In his November suite Richter now had material to hand that was by definition an invitation to incorporate the notion of reflection into the work. Not only were there sheets with a mirror image of the motif on the reverse; in some cases the ink that had soaked through layers of sheets created what looked like visual echoes. These factors led to a multiplicity of internal connections that provided a structure for the sequence of images.
Translated from German by Fiona Elliott
800 signed and numbered limited editions of Gerhard Richter's latest book November, consisting of 54 unseen works in ink, will be available from 20 March exclusively at Tate